Democracy’s Prospects: Looking Backwards

There is no democracy without transparency. The latter has long been ignored by aristocratic forms of government and now by contemporary manipulations of the masses. What is the way out?

This post belongs to a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

Is it only democracy that is failing in the United States? American power is challenged throughout the world, and, in Sheldon Wolin’s words, “its imperial sway is weakening.” The country’s global hegemony is a thing of the past, and the unwinnable “war against terrorism” did not help regain it. One can wonder if this failing empire is the opportunity for a democratic revival or if the tendencies toward inverted totalitarianism will remain intact.

Democracy, says the author, “is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs.” It follows that “its first requirement is a supportive culture, a complex of beliefs, values, and practices that nurture equality, cooperation, and freedom.” In this regard, “A rarely discussed but crucial need of a self-governing society is that the members and those they elect to office tell the truth.” That is this chapter’s topic.


Self-government—a government of, by, and for the people—is not possible if those in office assume as a matter of course that, when necessary, the citizenry can be lied to. Yet, in the age of spin doctors, public relations experts, and pollsters, Beltway politics in the United States is more about politics re-presented to citizens than politics representing them. According to Sheldon Wolin, a century of advertising in the U.S. has accustomed the public to exaggerations, false claims, and fantasies. Political consultants and media experts largely use proven selling techniques to frame the narrative most convenient to financial and political powers over citizens’ heads. Wars, for instance, are the objects of professional marketing campaigns, turning truth itself into a cheap commodity for the military-industrial complex.1

Republican lawmakers, in particular, see no limits to the game, serenely considering the crafting of alternate facts as the hallmark of sound governance. The existence of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, the absence of global warming, or, more recently, the 2020 “stolen” elections will remain in history as telling examples of their wild conception of moral and intellectual integrity. The fact is that they do not care about history or integrity. When your sole motivation is power, you are not accountable to anyone about anything regarding the truth, least of all your own conscience. “At bottom, says Sheldon Wolin, lying is the expression of a will to power. My power is increased if you accept a picture of the world which is the product of my will.'”2

On the other hand, it is almost a cliché that leaders must have to lie, mislead, or conceal facts from the public for the greatest interest of the nation. Lying is then presumed to be “a dispensation allowed only to elites who, theoretically, are more politically knowledgeable and experienced than ordinary citizens.” This conception of power is reminiscent of Plato’s theory of government. To him, it was necessary that a specially educated class of philosophers would monopolize political decision-making. Immune to the illusions by which most men live, they would filter their reasons by telling myths good enough for the population’s limited capacities.3 Plato stated that philosophers, guardians, and workers formed the three main categories of people in the city and that it was virtually impossible for anyone to evolve from one category to the other. People belonged to a category by their very soul, the same way that gold, silver, or copper are three different types of metal.

Conservatives of all stripes have always adhered to this type of thinking. They assume in good faith that, as long as it is geared toward the good of all, the principle of government can and should be based on some intrinsic discrimination between those who can govern and those who cannot. Xi Jin Ping and Putin, today, are clear examples of such intellectual shortsightedness. Though one step above Trump or Bolsonaro’s vulgarity and incompetence (as well as that of their American lawmaker stooges), they simply won’t admit that people if people can educate themselves, they deserve to govern themselves. By contrast, Plato had at least the merit of coherence. Those he categorized as philosophers were supposed to seek a superior form of knowledge whose object, by definition, was beyond the conditioned reality of this world.


Aside from a conception of power where the truth is either commodified or destined to be protected from ordinary people’s misunderstandings, the truth also falls victim to the opposition between the actual reality of all human lives and the virtual reality of money-making: “Put starkly, the crucial political issue of our times concerns the incompatibility between the culture of everyday reality to which political democracy should be attuned and the culture of virtual reality on which corporate capitalism thrives.”

Capitalism and democracy are two systems operating at different levels and with different goals. Therefore, they are not necessarily bound to oppose each other. But it so happened that “The fate of democracy is to have entered the modern world at the same moment as capitalism, roughly during the seventeenth century. As a consequence, the course of each became intertwined with the other. This meant, among other things, that the attempts to establish a democratic culture were an uphill struggle.” While democracy and capital were, at first, occasional political allies pitted against the stratified order of monarchy, each began “to define an identity and pursue strategies that reflected the reality of opposed interests, contrasting conceptions of power, and disagreements as to what degree of equality or inequality each could tolerate without compromising their respective systems.” Because capitalism and democracy were assimilated at first in the fight for freedom, the distinction between their respective operating fields has remained unclear for most in Western culture. Today, many identify capitalism with freedom exclusively, still confusing the legitimacy of a market economy with the more dubious one of a market society.

Following Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency (1963-1969),4 new Democratic administrations would be “liberal on social issues” but “fiscally conservative.” Deficit spending, which had been a prominent element in financing New Deal social programs, was adapted to the Republican strategy of promoting tax relief for the rich and, while steadily increasing the defense budget, discouraging social spending. As for Republican administrations themselves, “Reagan would come to symbolize the emergence of a political culture in which lying was merely one component in a larger pattern wherein untruthfulness, make-believe, and actuality were seamlessly woven.” This is how money-making virtual reality became mainstream in American political culture, with Reagan’s entourage including hard-nosed, ideological zealots “intent on expanding the power of the president, reducing governmental oversight of the economy, overriding environmental safeguards, and dismantling welfare programs . . .”

Further on, “The Bush II administration, with its particular amalgam of futurism and originalism, would press inauthenticity to extremes.” Bringing grandiose notions of expanding American power and professing reverence for an original Constitution, it “systematically undermined constitutional protections for individual rights and constitutional limitations on presidential power.” Aside from this and the “War on Terror” great hoax, “In both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections Bush’s minions employed tactics that revealed a chain of corruption extending from local officials to the highest court, all with the intention of thwarting the popular will.”

Beyond the bogus democracy that the United States has now become, what complicates the problem and makes it unique is that “today’s status quo is dynamic.” In contrast with earlier centuries, this status quo is not just about clinging to strongholds of power but about “changing continuously in ways that undermine the conditions for a viable democratic politics.” Change is now supposed to be the great virtue of society. But, as the author underlines it, “A society fixated on the future and caught in the frenzy of rapid change has difficulty knowing how to think about the consequences of loss, especially of things once widely shared. . . . Notions that were once common coin—’social justice,’ ‘objectivity,’ or ‘the common good’—now seem anachronisms, as do the commitments they implied. . . . Rapid change not only blunts the collective conscience but dims the collective memory. So many ‘pasts’ have flashed by and vanished that the temporal category itself seems obsolete. No collective memory means no collective guilt: surely My Lai is the name of a rock star.”

The supposed appeal of change for the sake of change is, indeed, far too close from the capitalistic logic not to raise legitimate suspicion: “Rapid change is not a neutral force, a natural phenomenon that exists independently of human will, or consideration of power, comparative advantage, and ideological biases. It is a ‘reality’ constructed from decisions arrived at within a certain framework—itself not accidental. We might call it ‘the political economy of change.’ . . . Democracy is not a player in that economy; it is not even regarded as relevant except as a pawn.”


Spin doctors, autocrats, and capitalism’s virtual reality are definite threats to the truthfulness needed in a democracy, but one must not forget that “Such holistic notions as’ We, the People’ are the remains of a day when the ‘people’ implied the vast majority of persons and the reality of a common pariah status: they were all excluded from politics.” The Founding Fathers actually framed the Constitution on their twisted relationship with the truth that all men are born free and equal in rights.

James Madison claimed in the tenth Federalist that the major argument for a new Constitution was to prevent the influence of “interests” and “factions.” He defined those as “a majority or minority” united by a “common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”5 Madison thus saw a threat in the aggregation of heterogeneous movements able to impose their rule if forming a majority. If these factions were ever to succeed, that would be the end of a stable government and the rule of law.

But the argument could equally be reversed. Couldn’t these “factions” be the voice of people trying to have a shot at redressing real political and economic inequalities? Couldn’t their claims, far from representing special interests, have universal significance? This is what Madison could not consider. In his logic, as it had been the case with Henry Ireton during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, these questions had simply no object. Both their views and that of all Founding Fathers was that the proper way to deal with political matters is to start with property ownership. It appeared to them that since property implies material independence, it is the very basis of freedom. Madison consequently argued that “the first object of government” should be “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.”6

Unfortunately, it is one or the other. Or human rights are recognized as such, or property rights are recognized as prevalent. Logic and history abundantly prove that the latter can only lead to the entrenchment of social injustices. Under the cloak of “different and unequal faculties,” the disenfranchised and dispossessed never get to enjoy the use of the practical means they need, such as education, healthcare, or equal treatment under the law. It is a road down to hell for society since its lower classes will readily be assumed to be lower people who had it coming. In an intellectually sophisticated manner, this is what Madison’s preventions express, according to Sheldon Wolin: “Madison’s portrayal of democracy’s politics as brimming with ‘passions,’ ‘animositie,’ ideological and religious ‘zeal’ and as essentially irrational was meant as a warning about the dangers of popular rule and a preliminary to showing that the proposed new constitutional system would simultaneously establish safeguards against it while protecting economic inequalities.”

America is Living James Madison’s Nightmare, article by Jeffrey Rosen in The Atlantic, Oct. 2018.

At the same time, “Since the revolution of 1776 had depended upon popular participation and as a result aroused democratic hopes, political expediency dictated that democratic impulses be controlled rather than suppressed. In short, how to manage democracy, or how to exploit division and thereby dilute commonality?” The solution required to find a way of nullifying not the rule of the majority itself but the differences that might discover their commonality. For that, Madison envisioned that an expanded society where the geography of huge distances combined with a “greater number of citizens” and “a greater variety of parties and interests” would render it “less probable” that “an unjust and interested majority” or a single “religious sect” or “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any improper or wicked project… [could] pervade the whole body of the Union.”7

Still, “how could the legislature as well as other governmental bodies be prevented from committing acts of demotic willfulness?” adds Sheldon Wolin. Madison’s answer was to superimpose on the political system the dynamic of competing interests found in society. The various offices “may be a check on the other,” the same way that “the private interest of every individual may be a centinel over the public rights.”8 Madison’s plan to block popular irrationality and its misguided view of self-interest was to have the respective dynamics of governmental bodies play against each other. Checks and balances, as well as the separation of powers, would provide a systemic restraint, “a machine that would go of itself”9. “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”10 Of course, checks and balances are not anti-democratic by themselves and, most importantly, ensure the possibility of a working form of government. In Madison’s time, however, the fact that not one governmental body could prevail against the others meant that none could incidentally help “factions” to discover their commonality.

Alexander Hamilton completed Madison’s view of the government’s mechanism by sketching in Federalist No 35 the outlines of the elite needed for an active state. In the same vein as Cromwell’s revolution in England and the establishment of the Commonwealth (1642-1649), this elite was to be formed of”land-owners, merchants, and men of the learned professions,” whose very “situations” required them to acquire “extensive inquiry and information,” even “a thorough knowledge of the principles of political economy.” “Thus, adds Sheldon Wolin, elite reason was represented by those with a drive for acquisition, accumulation, and exploitation leading to wealth and power, the modern reality principles for a political society conceived as a political economy.” Additionally, “If Madisonian checks and balances and the system’s political economy of conflicting interests were designed to prevent concerted action by a demos, the Hamiltonian executive was conceived for action.” This was primarily the president’s role, whose relative isolation from the citizenry facilitated it. As a single official, the president would provide the “energy” and direction that a numerous and divided Congress would not. “Decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man.”11


The American Revolution was a revolution indeed, in the sense that it opened the door to politics as a debating space, whereas the propertied class had wielded for centuries its financial power against the legitimacy of a debate amongst equals. Beyond their skewed perspective on property defining political worthiness, the Founding Fathers undoubtedly put their country on the right track. As the virtue of debating is to allow space for articulating rational arguments and have them heard, all Americans legitimately owe them everlasting gratitude. What is left today of this intrinsically democratic attainment, and what can we do to revive it?

Intending to create a new kind of electorate, “part cinematic and part consumer,” the stunting of rationality in the public debate and for ordinary citizens has become an art form in the United States. “How are elites able to manipulate the demos, shape it into an irrational electorate, and then capitalize on it? . . . by turning Madison’s theory of interests on its head and constructing artificial majorities. Instead of discouraging “factions” from forming a majority, elites temporarily assemble or rally diverse interests without integrating them. Instead of seeking ways to block the coalescence of diverse interests, they employ the strategy of ‘targeting’ them with a ‘message.’ That message, without necessarily promising to bestow the specific benefits the group might want, appeals to some broad ‘value’—for instance, a blue-collar ‘Reagan Democrat’ might be attracted by appeals to patriotism that are, at the same time, silent about promoting labor’s right to organize.”

In opposition with the irrationalism of political and corporate elites imbued with a mentality that is “expansionist, opportunistic, and, above all, exploitative,” “demotic rationality,” as Sheldon Wolin calls the practice of open political debates, implies that “the care and fate of the polity are of common concern; that we are all involved because we are all implicated in the actions and decisions which are justified in our name.” Democracy cannot exist unless people change themselves, “sloughing off their political passivity and, instead, acquiring some of the characteristics of a demos. That means creating themselves, coming-into-being by virtue of their own actions. . . . Generic high-school students can, before long, become principled lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, even MBAs who learn to behave, think, and speak according to ethical and demanding mores.”

The author does not see the victory of democracy as one of a demos but of democratic citizenries. “Democratic political consciousness, while it may emerge anywhere at any time, is most likely to be nurtured in local, small-scale settings, where both the negative consequences of political powerlessness and the positive possibilities of political involvement seem most evident. Further, a vital local democracy can help to bridge the inevitable distance between representative government and its constituencies. There is a genuinely valuable contribution which democracy can make to national politics, but it is dependent upon a politics that is rooted locally, experienced daily, and practice regularly, not just mobilized spasmodically.”

The elite would still be needed, though, but in the form of a “counter-elite” of democratic public servants committed to the common good, and of NGOs whose efforts aim to encourage local populations to take responsibility for their own well-being. “This contemporary version of the old struggle between ‘enclosure’ and the “commons,’ between exploitation and commonality, pretty much sums up the stakes: not what new powers we can bring into the world, but what hard-won practices we can prevent from disappearing.”

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Book Club discussion: What is the main idea in this chapter? What are its logical and/or real-world implications? Can you think of an objection?

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  1. See Frank Rich, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (New York: Penguin, 2006).
  2. Bernard Williams, Truth and truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 118. “This book is the best available discussion of the subject,” according to Sheldon Wolin.
  3. As Sheldon Wolin reminds us, it is worth noting that “Plato portrays his rulers as begrudging the time spent on politics and as looking forward to the day when they can retire and pursue philosophy. They are strictly limited in the years spent in office. A crucial difference between Plato and the neocons is that his polity is forbidden to expand or embark on foreign conquests. Further, in Plato’s antidemocracy there is no provision for interaction between the elite and the populace; hence while there is no provision for holding rulers accountable to the ruled, by the same token there is no likelihood of the Alcibiades dynamic of a demagogic elite exploiting mass emotion or of a mass inciting leaders to foreign adventures.”
  4. Note from the author: “The last instance of a Democratic administration that struggled to combine the welfare state with a crushing defense budget.”
  5. The Federalist, 57.
  6. Ibid., 58, 59.
  7. The Federalist, No. 10, 63, 64-65.
  8. Ibid., No 51, p. 349
  9. See Michael Kammen, A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (New York: Random House, 1987)
  10. The Federalist, No 51, p. 349
  11. Ibid., No. 10, pp.471-72; No. 71, p. 482. See also the discussion in Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, 508.
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